Monday, May 11, 2015

Petersen's Troy scrunches the denouement

Achilles died at Troy, shot by Paris’ arrow precisely in the critical spot. Apollodorus gives half the credit to Apollo: “Achilles was shot in the ankle by Alexander and Apollo at the Scaean Gates.” (Bibl. Epit. 5.4) This scene is set outside the Trojan walls (πρὸς ταῖς Σκυλαιαῖς πύλαις). Apollodorus’ concise narrative entails several intervening phases between Achilles’ death and the construction of Epeus’ Horse (Epit. 6.15-17).  In Apollodorus’ conglomerate account, the Trojan War hardly comes to a close at Achilles’ death. Until Wolfgang Petersen told the story (with David Beniot’s screenplay), it hadn’t occurred to me that Achilles might have gotten inside the city. And, if
he had penetrated the citadel, what might me have done?

Homer’s Iliad focuses all the events of the Trojan War, of course, on the development and cessation of Achilles’ rage. Sown in the quarrel with Agamemnon over Briseis in Book 1, the persistent wrath of the godlike hero is abated in the Homeric masterpiece-scene of Book 24. Once Priam receives Hector’s brutalized corpse, the great epic narrative closes quickly. And details of Achilles’ own fate mix into a quick narrative close. Achilles’ ill disposition is satisfactorily but summarily concluded without further narrative development. It has all come down to this.

Extra-Homeric classical tradition attributes three major events to the life of Achilles after the critical moment of ransoming Hector’s body.  Penthesileia still has Achilles’ heart to win. Thersites will still perish for his mockery of Achilles’ abiding infatuation with the Amazon. And Memnon will still fall to Achilles’ prowess. Nor does Homer take time to narrate the collective reaction to Achilles’ death, the funeral games, the burial beside Patroclus on Leuke, the contest for Achilles’ armor. These elements of the epic tradition are fully outside the scope of Homer’s Achillean narrative, which effectively closes down at Il. 24.675. Once Achilles sees Peleus in Priam, the world instantly changes, and the brutalizer becomes humane.

Homer’s final glimpse at Achilles has him lying down to sleep with lovely Briseis inside his tent. Priam retires outside but beneath the tent’s awning. Homer pays no attention to Achilles’ reaction to Priam’s furtive departure in the night. Was he going to order a Myrmidon’s breakfast for Priam in the morning? We never know. Instead, Homer’s Priam, safely conveyed, tacitly oversees the burial of Hector that it proceed as Achilles had provided (24.650-58). And within about 100 lines of Priam’s departure from Achilles’ tent, the great epic closes tersely with one line: “Thus they performed the burial of Hector breaker of horses.” (24.804) Just 150 lines earlier, one might not have anticipated that outcome might never transpire.

The Ransom’s powerful denouement can scarcely be understated. Narrating the Ransom’s conception, planning, execution, and effect fill the entirety of Book 24. Apollo’s urging begins the events that reverse the impasse that has pertained since the epic’s outset. The Ransom occupies the space and pathos commensurate with its narrative importance. Achilles has descended to beastial conduct; he emerges as the Greek alliance’s true king. And Homer’s rhetorical approach leaves the poet with nothing further to tell.

About 20 minutes remain in Petersen’s film when Priam enters Achilles’ tent by night. Repeated viewings find me asking myself whether the scene resonates only because it’s Petersen’s truest re-creation of a poignant Homeric moment. It succeeds because the scene’s internal elements correspond quite closely to the narrative in Iliad 24, but perhaps there’s more. The interlocutors say less here than they do in Homer.

Priam:    I cannot change what happened. It is the will of the gods. Give me this small mercy.
Achilles:    silence
Priam:    I loved my boy from the moment he opened his eyes until the moment you closed them. Let me wash his body. Let me say the prayers.  Let me place two coins on his eyes for the boatman.
Achilles:    silence —  If I let you walk out of here… If I let you take him, it doesn’t change anything. — You’re still my enemy in the morning.
Priam:    You’re still my enemy tonight. But even enemies can show respect.
Achilles:    silence — I admire your courage. Meet me outside in a moment.

Besides merely ransoming Hector’s body, Petersen’s cinematic scene narrates a three-fold expansion beyond Homer’s: Achilles’ expression of affection for Hector (“my brother”), the relinquishment of Briseis to the Trojans, the parting shot that Priam is, in Achilles’ judgment, “a far better king than the one leading this army.” Homer needed the scene to do one thing. Petersen/Beniot require it to do three.

That indirect jab at the absent Agamemnon plays upon Petersen’s primary theme in the film, that unworthy kingship is ugly. Accordingly, the film’s narrative hinges on Achilles’ barb and cuts immediately to the face of Agamemnon’s outrage: “What business does Achilles have cutting deals with the enemy?!”  Agamenon’s impiety is matched only by his Gulf-War military mismangement: “Even if it costs me 40,000 Greeks, I will smash their walls to the ground. Hear me, Zeus! I will smash their walls to the ground.” Coming from a man who throughout the film has manifest nothing but irreverence for the gods, this oath is scarcely reverend.

Achilles, on the other hand, comes away from the Ransom a sincerely changed man. This is true both in Homer and in Petersen. In the film, though, the hero now kisses men, living and dead, on the cheek and on the forehead. He decides to withdraw the Myrmidons from the war’s finale.  “I don’t want the men to be a part of this.” We know they have twelve days to get out of Troy, the timeframe dictated by the moratorium Achilles unilaterally offered as king to King Priam for Hector’s funeral rites. Petersen’s Achilles, further, maintains an inclination to abide Troy’s sack so that he can protect virtue to the last. One final beheading of a Greek, one last kiss for Briseis, and he’s gone. Had he merely slipped away, Petersen’s Achilles would not have perished.

This resumes the first matter I mentioned at the outset. Why does Achilles stay at Troy, if he doesn’t want his men to “be part of” the sack of Troy? In Petersen’s film, Achilles charges into the heart of burning Troy in order to save Briseis from Agamemnon’s ravishment and (maybe) death. In the end  
(of Agamemnon), Briseis shows that she has learned a thing or two from her Thessalian lover, but Achilles himself is also needed for her full extrication. Their final dialogue ends the film.

Achilles: It’s all right. Its’ all right. Fondling Briseis’ hair, as Paris comes closer for the kill. You gave me peace in a lifetime of war.
Paris:        Briseis, Come.
Briseis:      No
Achilles:    You must. Troy is fallen. Go. Begin anew. … It’s alright. Go. They kiss. Go. She departs with Paris. Achilles dies peacefully. The POV rises upward to long crane shot tracking his soul’s POV, to contrast the grassy lawn where Achilles's body lies with the burning houses of Troy. — Cut to Odysseus’ ponderous lighting of Achilles’ funeral pyre inside the Trojan citadel.
Odysseus: places coins on Achilles’ eyes. Find peace, My Brother.
Odysseus: voice over: If they ever tell my story, let them say that I walked with giants.  Men rise and fall like the winter wheat; but these names will never die. Let them say I lived in the time of Hector, breaker of horses. Let them say I lived in the time of Achilles.

Because I promised — and tried to teach my class sincerely — that I would not be distracted by Wolfgang Petersen’s narrative “inauthenticities” in Troy, I will gladly grant the poetic license the film’s direct uses throughout the film. I bite my tongue, rather than gripe, that Achilles dies after Priam in the sack of Troy. For Aeneid 2 to work, Neoptolemus’ father Achilles must already be among the shades at the moment he kills Priam. Vergil’s chronology always makes me uneasy, anyway. But I still think that Vergil’s a great poet than Petersen, even if they do work in different media.

Traditional tellings of the Iliupersis have Achilles involved as agressor to the end, storming Troy’s citadel and stirring it up to the last. Homer, of course, doesn’t go this far.